NSA Uses Special Google Cookies to Aid in Surveillance | TechWell

NSA Uses Special Google Cookies to Aid in Surveillance

In another news item released this week from the seemingly never-ending treasure trove that is the leaked Edward Snowden documents, which detail the spying activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), the Washington Post reports that “when companies follow consumers on the Internet to better serve them advertising, the technique opens the door for similar tracking by the government.” Yes, this means that the NSA is taking advantage of cookies and location data to help its surveillance operations. From the Washington Post:

The NSA's use of cookies isn't a technique for sifting through vast amounts of information to find suspicious behavior; rather, it lets NSA home in on someone already under suspicion–akin to when soldiers shine laser pointers on a target to identify it for laser-guided bombs.

The Washington Post makes sure to clarify that the leaked Snowden slides from which this information came from don’t specifically detail how exactly the NSA gets access to Google PREF cookies, which the paper describes as a “Google-specific tracking mechanism” that doesn’t rely on personal data like one’s name but rather numeric codes. While Google and other such tech companies have been trying to distance themselves from the NSA’s activities, the Washington Post suggests that the special Google cookies could have been granted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. According to the Verge, the information gained from Google allows the NSA and the British intelligence agency the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to “single out a specific machine and send out its software to hack into the user's computer.” From the Verge:

Google's PREF cookie reportedly gets loaded onto a computer when they use Google's products, like Search or Maps—it can also be loaded through sites that host Google products, like an embedded map on a third-party site. That cookie contains a code that lets Google track users to personalize their ad experience.

All of this new tracking news comes at a time when “eight of the most prominent U.S. tech companies have demanded that strict new limits be put on government surveillance,” the Atlantic Monthly reports. The magazine’s story discusses a letter to President Obama and Congress that was crafted by Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL. The open letter addresses the companies’ concerns that their liberties are being compromised by the government’s activities, and they need to rebuild trust in the public’s eye. For more on the news of how the NSA “piggybacks” on Google’s tracking tools, check out the following interview with Post contributor Ashkan Soltani who describes the NSA’s ability for “laser–guided” targeting thanks to the cookies.

Up Next

About the Author

TechWell Insights To Go

(* Required fields)

Get the latest stories delivered to your inbox every week.